Iain MacRitchie: Children in the care system deserve help to enter university

Published in The Times

I wasn’t quite a straight-A student, but not far off. Glasgow born, but West End. Parents who hadn’t gone to university but encouraged me every step of the way. Why do I think it is fantastic news that young people with experience of care in Scotland are getting additional help to get a university place? There are many reasons, but I’ll start with three simple ones.

Despite more young people attending university — 40 per cent of school leavers in Scotland — the figure for the care-experienced is just 4 per cent. This isn’t because they are less intelligent or have less potential. It’s because being removed from families, the death of guardians, homelessness, poverty, neglect or abuse makes survival more urgent than exam results.

These are young people who experience prolonged disruption and trauma and have no choice or control. How can we expect them to concentrate in school? Instability at home doesn’t magically stop at the school door. The grades they achieve grossly understate their capability. The change to Scotland’s university admission policy, guaranteeing pupils from a care background a place provided they meet the minimum requirements, is a great first step to make the system fairer.

My second reason betrays my past business life. This decision makes economic sense. I’ve seen it is possible. Once, only 54 per cent of Glasgow’s care-experienced young people progressed to employment, college or university; now 83 per cent do. For those that do have the education outcomes, job choices flow and ultimately life chances. Do we really want an alternative where young people don’t realise what they are capable of through no fault of their own? We allow it to happen or we change it and avoid picking up the social cost and consequences.

The third reason is about what version of a future we want. One that is increasingly divided or one more cohesive, with understanding and mutual respect? I would far rather have the next generation of business leaders, professionals, politicians and civil servants to be representative of every life experience, ability to relate and resilience. Take a young person I mentor. A young carer, then placed into a homeless unit while trying to study, estranged from her family and having to deal daily with issues way beyond her years. She is now flourishing at medical school. What kind of doctor will she make? One who relates, empathises, understands and is extraordinarily resilient. I know who I would want looking after me in my old age and running our institutions, services and country.

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